Hail thee small Fishes of Uganda the Backbone of the Fish Business Sector

Hail thee small Fishes of Uganda the Backbone of the Fish Business Sector

Left to right: (Nkejje) haplochromines, (Mukene) Ratrineobola argentea fish and powder for sale at Owino Market-Kampala, Mukene retail business at Kiyindi landing site, Lake Victoria –Buikwe District, Uganda

At a fish festival adjacent to River Nile in Jinja, the crown is eager to eat fish. Among the many activities is showcasing different fish types and exhibiting different fish cuisines, stakeholders in Fisheries from policy, private sector, research institutions and school children are present to explain to the public various issues about fish. I walk to a reveler and ask what his preference of fish is and of what importance is the fish to him anyway. He told me “Nile perch” (Mputa) Lates niloticus is the top most fish and he adds “I enjoy it smoked and cooked in peanut sauce”. Pondering what his next preference is, he tells me “Tilapia” (Ngege) Oreochromis niloticus is the second choice. “I like it deep fried and served with fresh vegetables”, he tells me as he points to a parlor that he earlier placed his order for a big one.


We walk over to the food court and I inquire if the chef had on the menu other fish types like the African catfish (Male); which the chef said “No”.


When I inquired about Silver fish (Mukene)- Rastreneobola argentea, his response was bold and specific. ”We cook Nile perch and Tilapia. The rest of the fish you are asking about are not sold here, they are for the poor, we do not prepare them in restaurants”.


In a consolation guise I made an order for 1 deep fried Tilapia and I settled down to eat, I wondered if many Ugandans with negative attitude like the Chef’s knew that the small fishes in the lakes and Rivers in Uganda were the ones sustaining the big fish like Nile perch and Tilapia that have dominated the fish trade.


The solution was clear to me that more awareness about diversity of fish and the critical importance of fish is vital moreover; strategic focus is needed in the commercialization of small fish and promotion of their nutritional value as well.


To the contrary, available data indicates that fish has become less available to Ugandans because of declining stocks of large fish in water bodies in the country, coupled with high exports and massive post- harvest losses. Uganda’s per-capita fish consumption stands at 12.5kg/person/year which is lower than FAO recommended 25kg/person/year. This will decline further due to the high population growth rate of Uganda. Further still, Nile perch as one of the widely consumed fish species is mainly processed for export leaving by-products like bones, skin and heads for the local population. The poorly processed by-products affect the harnessing of the nutrients; improved handling methods alongside development of alternative safe and nutritious fish-based products can increase availability and accessibility to vulnerable populations in Uganda.


It is therefore, critical for Fisheries, Trade and Marketing, Water, Wildlife sectors; and for the public and policy implementers to understand the need to sustainably conserve and manage the many fish and plant species that live in Ugandan waters.


Fisheries and Limnology experts at the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI) of the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) content that conservation of fisheries ought to start with understanding the status of the fisheries resources.


Dr. Richard Oguttu Owahyo, a Senior Fisheries Research Scientist from NaFIRRI flashes a torch through the development of Fisheries Resources in Uganda through the years. He notes that “By 1927 when the British Colonial Government considered Lake Victoria as an important asset to its colonies, a mission was sent to carry out the first Lake Victoria Survey done by Michael Graham in 1929, which was subsequently followed by other studies on Lakes Albert, Kyoga, George and Edward”. “This was the basis of understanding fish stocks, quantity and gears used to fish them, so that the fishes of the Lake are better utilized”, he adds.


With the findings that Haplocromines dominated fish biomass in the lake, a solution to have the fishery improved was sought hence introducing the Nile perch (Lates niloticus locally known as Mputta)”. By the late 1950s, the Nile perch that is not indigenous to Lake Victoria was brought in from Lakes Albert and Turkana. Over time some spices of fish disappeared”. Recalling the first lake survey that indicates that stocks of Haplocromines (Nkejje) of Lake Victoria that had the highest population was being depleted in small lakes.” This is partly explained by the fact that the Nile Perch feeds on live fish and with the Nkejje as its preferred food.


Laban Musinguzi a Fisheries Research Officer at NaFIRRI notes that it is vital for people to know more about the variety of fish species in Uganda, fish habitats and the threats to fish survival. “This is important if we are to have more fish to consume today and in the future. Learning about fish as a student and a career research scientist, I have realized that people have little knowledge about fish, its habitat and conditions under which it thrives”. He adds that “majority know the Nile perch, Nile tilapia and African Catfish, which they recognize as fish because it is served and sold in restaurants.” He adds that “They do not know that the Rasteneobola argenta -Silver cyprinid (Mukene) is equally nutritious with good micronutrients for human growth and development. Actually this fish dominates catches in Lake Victoria, sometimes it is underutilized. Little knowledge about fish is problematic because it makes many fishes less appreciated, which could be the reason why many fishes and their habitats are of poor conservation status”.


As people learn more about fish by consuming the smaller species that they do not consider important, they will appreciate that the survival of the small fishes is paramount in establishing the food bases for the bigger fishes that consume them. Best estimates indicate that Uganda has more than 400 fish species ranging from Mukene, one of the smallest fishes to the Nile perch that is the biggest fish weighing 1-140 kgs.


The Nkejje provide the highest proportion of food for the adult Nile perch (37%) and are the second to the lake prawn, as the most important food for juvenile Nile perch (13%). Therefore, for the country to have continuous fish supply, Ugandans have to know that behind the fishes they enjoy, there are several other fishes, lake prawns, snails, worms and many others organisms we cannot see with our eyes but are the food or pastures of the big fishes.


Notwithstanding, all these fishes are vital for the survival of others. Nkejje is a case in point of relatively small fishes, measuring a maximum length of 14 cm. These along with Mukene is not preferred on the dinner table and are probably consumed in less privileged households and may never be found on the menu of any restaurant. More can be done to improve such fish types by adding value to them so they can be consumed in form of powders, snacks and soups sold in retail and super markets to provide the needed micronutrients to many people suffering nutritional deficiencies especially women in the reproductive age and children below the age of 5 years.


According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, Fish is one of the most traded food commodities worldwide with 54% from developing countries. Over 200 million people are directly and indirectly employed by the fisheries and aquaculture industry.

Mr. Laban Musinguzi explaining to the public several fish types at a Fish Festival in Jinja

The writer Emily Arayo is a development Communications officer at the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and a Communications Consultant (emilyarayo@gmail.com)

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